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The Military We Need

A strategic approach to affordable and effective defense.

11:00 PM, Dec 22, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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Thus, the main engagement with China will come at sea and in the air. In both of these spheres, China is making substantial progress, particularly in the air, where its acquisition of the latest Russian fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems pose a substantial threat to the ability of the U.S. to control the air over the Straits of Taiwan and the South China Sea, or to penetrate Chinese airspace to threaten Chinese bases. At sea, the Chinese may not have the ability to control the seas around its coastline, but it is developing the capabilities needed to deny those seas to the U.S. Navy for a limited time--the time needed to secure its strategic objectives and then declare a victorious cease fire. In the process, it may inflict such serious casualties on U.S. forces that we will accept the fait accompli.

From a strategic and defense investment standpoint, the situation calls for a bifurcation of our defense modernization programs. Clearly, the Army has the conventional capabilities needed to defeat all potential regional adversaries, who in turn will employ means that circumvent our conventional capabilities altogether. To deter, and if necessary defeat these regional adversaries, the Army must develop the same degree of superiority in low intensity operations that it enjoys in high-intensity combat. That implies reorienting the Army away from heavy forces and transforming them into the kinds of light forces needed for low intensity combat, retaining just enough high intensity capability to hedge against contingencies in Korea and the Middle East. Moving most of our heavy forces into the reserve and National Guard will allow us to surge to meet a conventional challenge that might exceed our active conventional component.

If we do that, we will find that our present inventory of conventional ground systems is more than adequate, with periodic upgrades, to meet all potential threats, obviating the need for expensive programs, such as the Future Combat System, which show little cognizance of strategic realities. On the other hand, modernizing the Army to fight low intensity combat is much less capital intense--the technologies needed, while not "low" per se, are not as costly as a new tank, personnel carrier, attack helicopter or artillery piece. Ironically, the V-22 Osprey (now gaining laurels in Iraq), one of the few new high-tech systems that really supports low intensity operations (by virtue of its ability to insert troops very rapidly at long distances from base) is on the list of programs the Times wants killed.

Therefore, with proper reorientation, the Army should be able to meet its modernization and transformation requirements for considerably less than presently projected. Moreover, such a transformed and reoriented Army would be able to generate significantly more useable combat power, and thus would not require substantial increases in its personnel top line (further increases in combat power could be generated if, as I have written elsewhere, the bulk of administrative functions were outsourced and the number of officers reduced by half).

Money saved on Army modernization should be directed to the Navy and the Air Force, where the situation is the reverse of the Army's. These services will have to carry the burden of deterring and defeating the "peer competitor", but on the other hand, can have only a limited role in low intensity combat, mainly that of supporting the ground forces. Much of this can be done using relatively low cost unconventional assets, such as UAVs for surveillance and attack, or fast patrol boats for inshore interdiction and anti-piracy operations. In low intensity operations the naval and air environment is relatively benign, and therefore relatively simple and inexpensive systems can be used to generate the combat force needed.

On the other hand, both services are going to need top of the line capabilities to meet the Chinese in the air and on the sea. Contrary to the assertion of the Times, the latest models of the F-16 and FA-18 are no match for the Sukhoi Su-30s and Su-35s of the Chinese air force (exercises against less advanced Indian Su-27s make this abundantly clear). We should therefore invest much more in the next generation of combat aircraft, particularly the FA-22 Raptor, which has far more developmental potential than the smaller "design to cost" F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (which, contra the Times once more, will never be a superior fighter on par with the Raptor).

Meanwhile, the Navy must get its shipbuilding house in order and complete the design and construction of a new generation of destroyer and attack submarine capable of dealing with the panoply of current and emerging Chinese mines, torpedoes, submarines and anti-ship missiles. The Times is right about that--the Zumwalt-class DDG and the Virginia-class SSNs are relicts of the Cold War and should be terminated. On the other hand, the much vaunted LCS is too big and too expensive to actually perform the inshore mission in support of ground forces: at $600 million each, it's almost as expensive as an Aegis destroyer, and thus too valuable to expose in the littoral. A new and affordable destroyer, and a smaller, more modern SSN are needed to meet the Chinese navy, while a fleet of expendable patrol craft are created for counter-insurgency and anti-piracy operations.

Perhaps a word is needed here regarding ballistic missile defense, which the Times would reduce to the level of a research program. The Times posits that missile defense is useful mainly against North Korea, and that our current capabilities are sufficient in that direction. The Times makes the mistake of seeing missile defense as only being defense of the territorial United States. However, missile defense should be part of a broader American strategy of extended deterrence against erstwhile regional nuclear powers such as Iran that threaten U.S. allies and interests. An extended missile defense umbrella would add defensive deterrent capabilities to existing U.S. offensive capabilities, making the latter far more credible while devaluing small nuclear arsenals such as that being sought by Iran. As for the Times's suggestion that the U.S. should seek Russian cooperation on missile defense, we have made this offer on several occasions and have been rebuffed at every turn.

In a similar vein, the Times's notion that deep cuts in the Russian and American strategic nuclear stockpiles will somehow save money and enhance stability are hardly worth the time of day. Strategic forces account for barely 5 percent of the U.S. defense budget, including all personnel, training and maintenance costs. Not too much money to be saved there. Moreover, as stockpiles decline, the vulnerability of the residual deterrent increases, creating greater instability unless, of course, that remaining deterrent is protected by an effective missile defense umbrella. The Times wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

Overall, then, the Times editorial is an exercise in strategic fatuousness, full of errors of fact and of reasoning. It is, really, nothing more than the same sort of appeal we saw throughout the 1980s and 90s--that we cannot afford an effective defense, therefore we must design a defense that we can afford, effective or not. How much we can afford depends entirely on where your priorities lie. If you believe that the principal role of government is the defense of our country, then the current spending level of 4 percent stands as the barely acceptable minimum; if you believe that the main purpose of government is providing everyone with free health care, free college education, a lavish retirement and excursions into environmental extremism, well, 4 percent is more than we can afford. The Times has made its choice, but we don't have to follow.

Viewed from a rational, strategic perspective, our defense R&D and procurement priorities must focus on the Navy and the Air Force, while the Army must accept the idea that its future lies not in "big wars" involving tanks and tracks, but smaller operations such as counter-insurgencies, stabilization and reconstruction, and even the dreaded humanitarian assistance. The challenge for the Army is maintaining its hedge capabilities in conventional high intensity combat at the same time, because the Army has never really been very good at doing these two things concurrently--it either shifts from one extreme to the other, as we saw before, during and after the Vietnam war. Perhaps a new generation of leadership will be able to break this cycle. But we won't get there if President Obama takes the advice of the armchair strategists at the Gray Lady.

Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.